It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" plays like an anthology of the best parts from all the Saturday matinee serials ever made. It takes place in Africa, Nepal, Egypt, at sea and in a secret submarine base. It contains trucks, bulldozers, tanks, motorcycles, ships, subs, Pan Am Clippers, and a Nazi flying wing. It has snakes, spiders, booby traps and explosives. The hero is trapped in a snake pit, and the heroine finds herself assaulted by mummies. The weapons range from revolvers and machineguns to machetes and whips. And there is the supernatural, too, as the Ark of the Covenant triggers an eerie heavenly fire that bolts through the bodies of the Nazis.
The Saturday serial aspects of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" have been much commented on, and relished. But I haven't seen much discussion of the movie's other driving theme, Spielberg's feelings about the Nazis. "Impersonal," critic Pauline Kael called the film, and indeed it is primarily a technical exercise, with personalities so shallow they're like a dew that has settled on the characters. But Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in "Raiders" he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.
We know how deeply he feels about the Holocaust. We have seen "Schindler's List" and we know about his Shoah Project. Those are works of a thoughtful adult. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the work of Spielberg's recaptured adolescence, I think; it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and it also perhaps contains the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good. The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by Philip Kaufman, George Lucas and an uncredited Spielberg, whose movie is great fun on the surface -- one of the classic entertainments -- and then has a buried level.
Consider. The plot hinges on Hitler's desire to recapture the long-lost ark. "Hitler's a nut on the subject," Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is told by a government recruiter. "Crazy. He's obsessed with the occult." But not just anything occult. The ark, if found, would be the most precious Jewish artifact imaginable -- the chest that held the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses on the mountain top. "An army which carries the ark before it is invincible," Indy says; Hitler wants to steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for his own victory.